East End Theater: Reimagining Classic Tales

Pictured Above: Members of the cast of “Wolf Hall,” which opens Friday at the North Fork Community Theatre

On two stages separated by the Peconic Bays this March, tribes of local theater people are embarking on two tales that provide new takes on some of the most recognizable stories in English literature.

The North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck is putting up “Wolf Hall,” a story seen through the eyes of King Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, while Boots on the Ground Theater is putting up “Sherlock’s Secret Life,” a prequel to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s serialized Victorian era detective series, at the Southampton Cultural Center. Both productions run March 6 through March 22.

The directors and producers, cast and crew of both shows are excited about jumping in to other time periods — “Wolf Hall” takes place in the Tudor Period of the early 1500s, while “Sherlock’s Secret Life” takes place in the early 1880s — and in the chance to put a fresh spin on classic stories.

“Wolf Hall” is based on a 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Hilary Mantel, who also won the Man Booker Prize for her sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies.” The first book covers the tumult in the court of Henry VIII as the king attempts to seek a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, during which time Cromwell has the king installed as the supreme head of the new Church of England. The second book follows Cromwell’s role as Henry VIII becomes bored with his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, because she is unable to give him a male heir.

Both books have since been adapted into a BBC/PBS miniseries and a stage play put up by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London before coming to the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in 2015, where Colin Palmer, who is directing this production at the NFCT, first saw it.

“It captured the cultural imagination in England,” he said. “I was surprised by how relevant it was to modern politics. The language is incredibly modern. It’s not 16th Century phrases. When you put on the costumes, it feels like you’re going to do Shakespeare, but it’s a different beast.”

But one political current that Shakespeare so well understood has not changed in 600 years.

“People can be so tied to dogma, and to their pre-existing beliefs. It can end up destroying you,” said Mr. Palmer.

Mr. Palmer, who was raised Catholic, had learned since childhood of the role Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas More, played in attempting to protect Catholicism from the English Reformation, as depicted in the classic play and film “A Man for All Seasons.” But in this show, More’s dogma leads to his downfall.

“I had learned that he was a great humanist who stood up to a tyrant, who wrote the book “Utopia” and believed a better world could be achieved through humor,” he said. “But other historical sources say he was virulently close to his faith, and would torture heretics in his home. Someone who would rather torture people than see the New Testament translated into English seems like a very different person to me.”

The cast of this production includes 22 actors drawing from several North Fork theater companies, including the NFCT, Northeast Stage and the Riverhead Faculty & Community Theatre.

“Everyone in this cast has worked with at least one other person here before,” said Mr. Palmer.

“We’re working a lot without ego,” said Assistant Director A.D. Newcomer. “When Colin puts together a cast, he really supports them. You don’t always see a director supporting the actors and creating a company feel.”

Sherlock’s Secret Life

Boots on the Ground Theater’s production of “Sherlock’s Secret Life” also benefits from a collaborative cast.

Director Josephine Wallace, a veteran of numerous productions on the South Fork, pre-cast this production after reading the script and realizing she already knew who would be perfect for each role.

Boots on the Ground Theater founder Bonnie Grice, who plays Sherlock Holmes’ landlady, Mrs. Hudson and is a big fan of Victorian costuming, picked out the script, which was written by Ed Lange and won the Audio Publishers Association’s National Audie Award for its dramatic presentation as an audio book and was originally produced by the New York State Theatre Institute.

This is the first time it’s been produced on the East End.

“I read a bunch of scripts before I brought this one to Jo,” said Ms. Grice. “There’s a library of Sherlock scripts but some of them are so stuffy and old fashioned.”

“Sherlock’s Secret Life” is told through flashbacks from the perspective of a much older Dr. Watson, played by Dan Becker, who recounts a story that predates Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock story, “A Study in Scarlet.” This story, which is told with a lot of humor, is set off when a mysterious beauty with amnesia arrives on Sherlock’s doorstep looking for help.

“When we picked the script, I knew who I wanted to cast, and it’s working out wonderfully,” said Ms. Wallace, who is excited by her natural evolution from an actor to a director in recent years. 

“I loved the aspect of the older Watson outliving everyone else,” said Ms. Wallace. “What better way of telling the story than having him look back at the love, tragedy and betrayal.”

“Theater is ever-changing growth,” she added. “This is such a loving and supportive environment. We’re always told that being ‘professional’ means being paid, but what it means to me is we all shoot high to put on a really great show.”

Boots on the Ground has been a big proponent of literary classics, and of including young actors in their productions, and this one is no exception. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Schiavoni of Sag Harbor, who starred in the company’s “The Red Badge of Courage” in 2018 will play the young Dr. Watson.

The company has also organized a special Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. on March 14, which is  free for local students and will be followed by a Q&A with Southampton Town Police Department Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa on detective work, then and now. Reservations for that performance can be had by calling 631.287.4377.

NFCT’s “Wolf Hall” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. March 6 through 22. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at nfct.com. The theater is located at 12700 Old Sound Avenue in Mattituck.

Boots on the Ground’s “Sherlock’s Secret Life” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. March 6 through 22. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students and can be purchased online at scc-arts.org. The Southampton Cultural Center is at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton.

— Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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